Why I am not a crazy making Calvinist (or Arminian either)

Because some of my book reviews as of late have me reading some thoughtful books from confirmed Calvinists I’ve been toying with writing a post on why I’m not a Calvinist. Part of me wonders if any one over 23 really cares about the great Calvinist/Arminian/Openness debate. There are the few who have cracked open a case of Calvin and have ever after had to attend weekly support groups where they discuss their powerlessness before God, but for most of us who grew up evangelical, Calvinism may just be a life stage. This is how it worked in my branch of Evangelicalism:

  1. Say Sinner’s Prayer and go to church.
  2. Listen to countless sermons about heart warming Jesus who helps you be successful at life.
  3. Get involved in youth group and do fun things and learn the techniques of evangelism and how to do mass outreach on your heathen friends.
  4. Graduate from high school and go to college. Realize your faith is shallow and activist but not intellectually hearty, so you look for something a little meatier.
  5. Around this time you run into someone from the uber-reformed camp. They use words you never heard like expiation, soteriology, propitiation, antinomian, etc. They seem really smart so you join up. Of course you have no idea what they are talking about.

I’m kidding of course (maybe). But I do think the time when I was probably closest to Calvinism was when I was age 18-23. This was my story:

I had a dear friend who read Luther’s Bondage of the Will and decided he was a Calvinist (a fact that would have given Luther much consternation). He became passionate about God’s sovereignty over all things (especially Salvation) and he challenged our naïve assumptions about human freedom. My friend was smarter than me and he thought about the issues more. I was more forceful and a bit of a jerk so I twisted his words in argument to make him sound like he was saying that the rest of us weren’t really Christians. He got mad and the conversation was over (I apologized a few years later).

But as you know I am a reader, and so I read some Calvinists and better yet, I read John Calvin. I loved a lot of what I read. What I found intoxicating about Calvin’s view of God’s sovereignty was his desire to give God worship for everything he possible could. I copied out this quote from the Institutes and referred to it often:

Moreover, although our mind cannot apprehend God without rendering some honor to him, it will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honor and adore unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him. This I take to mean that not only does he sustain this universe (as he once founded it) by his boundless might, regulate it by his wisdom, preserve it by his goodness and especially rule mankind by his righteousness and judgment, bear with it in his mercy, watch over it by his protection; but also that no drop will be found either of wisdom and light, or righteousness or power or rectitude, or of genuine light which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause.(Institutes, I.II.i)

I did, and do think that this is one of the most beautiful words on God’s providence and transcendence that I have ever read. I also read Charles Spurgeon’s words about human freedom and God’s sovereignty:

“That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.” (Charles H. Spurgeon, New Park Street Pulpit, 4:337)

To my mind this sort of Calvinism seemed okay to me because it acknowledged that God and human freedom/responsibility were both true, non-contradictory and somehow fit together in a way beyond all human comprehension. So for a while I called myself a Calvinist when pushed, but not the sort of Calvinist who needed everything in neat categories or had to understand everything and use big words no one understood.

But I didn’t stay there, I repented. I think in the end, I just wanted to remain apophatic about it(alright you got me, big word). God is bigger than our grasp and Calvinism, as it has come down to us through Beza and the various confessions seemed too neat and constricting.

This is where I appreciate Jacob Arminius, the Dutch Remonstrants, John Wesley and Methodism. I do not think Arminian theology is superior to Calvinism. Calvinists love to point at ways the danger of Pelaganism is always knocking at the Arminian door. But as a critique on Calvinism, it is pure gold refined in the fire.

You see, Jacob Arminius woke up one day and said, “you know the way we’re talking about God’s grace and sovereignty? It’s crazy making!” And honestly it is. Every time a tsunami robs hundreds of thousands from their home and livelihood, every time an addict overdoses, or a young foreign woman is sold into sexual slavery, or brutally murdered, Calvinism posits that this is the will of God (but not God’s fault). The implications of Calvinist’s conception of Divine election–that we are chosen by God, not based on our merit but by his good pleasure–is that there are those who are condemned to hell–not chosen by God so unable (and unwilling) to receive his grace. Double election, your destiny is either heaven if God deems to choose you or hell if God passively chooses you go there.

Arminius chose instead to base election on divine foreknowledge and the perennial debate about whether this weakened grace began (because divine foreknowledge bases God’s election on our receptivity rather than Divine power). For my money, I don’t want to say with Piper and others that God chose to rip down homes in tornado and call these ‘acts of God’ God’s fierce fingers. I also don’t want to say that nature is out of God’s control either. Do I believe in human freedom? Nope, only freedom in Christ. There are too many institutional and systemic forces that keep people locked into certain choices for me to be a full scale advocate of human freedom. On the other hand, freedom from addiction and bad habits comes through a person’s agency. So there are elements on both sides that seem right. I think the truth is more complicated than our various attempts to systematize it. Which means that I can appreciate aspects of various different theological accounts.

I haven’t said anything above about ‘Openness Theology.’ I really like some of the Openness people and have my critiques of their position too. But this post is already overlong.

So in my years of wisdom since my flirtation with Calvinism, I simply trust. I don’t know how it works out, I’m not naïve either.

Tomorrow I am reviewing a book about Calvinist super giant B.B. Warfield. Stay tuned: Same Mat(ichuk) place, Same Mat(ichuk) channel.

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5 thoughts on “Why I am not a crazy making Calvinist (or Arminian either)”

  1. This is very thought provoking, and I’m going to reread and rethink this a time or two more. I had no real concept of Calvinism until about 10 years ago, but it really did make an impression on me right from the start with that “T” is for “Total Depravity.” (I guess a person’s mindset would determine how they interpret this…I guess they could be either very insulted and put off by it.) For me it was a very good thing, because it made me feel like everyone was treated the same, nobody had any advantage over anyone else, even if they had been brought up in a family that did all of the right things, etc. It is strangely liberating to know that no matter what, I’ll never be good enough on my own. For me it was a good starting point to beginning to understand grace. Anyway, thanks for all of the thought that went into your post!

    1. Thanks! I actually have no problem with “Total Depravity” when it is unpacked. People object because it sounds like Calvinists are saying that everyone is utterly completely depraved with no personal goodness in them. More accurately, Calvinism teaches that people are ‘wholly defiled,’ meaning sin touches every aspect of the person. Alas it didn’t fit the TULIP acronym which has become a popular summary of Calvinism in the past century.

      I hope despite my tongue in cheek-ness at points, I don’t sound disrespectful of Calvinism in general. I appreciate many aspects of their theology but just can’t buy in full throttle.

      1. You didn’t sound disrespectful at all. I think when your words “God is bigger than our grasp” really says a good deal. No matter which perspective one takes…Calvinist or Arminian…one runs the risk of falsely believing, “I’ve got this God thing all wrapped up.” (Yikes!)

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